Let’s talk about mental illness: the dangers of self-stigma

Written by Cari Zahn

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We all have a point of reference that our minds wander to when presented with the idea of “mental illness.” Maybe your brother is in a few special classes to help him focus better, bipolar disorder runs on your maternal side of the family, or you personally struggle with anxiety or depression.  

If you have a Facebook account, or frequently search the internet by some other means, you’ve likely discovered an article or two about breaking the stigma on mental illness. We’ve all been taught about offensive language regarding mental illness and as a result have shed terms such as “psycho,” “crazy,” and the most recently popular “triggered” from our vocabulary list. Any form of prejudice or discrimination against people living with mental illness would fall under this category of stigma.

This stigma, often referred to as social or public stigma, continues to be an issue for people living with mental illness, no doubt, but a serious problem that often doesn’t get talked about is self-stigma and the dangers that are attached to it.

Recall your mental illness referent: your brother, maternal relatives, yourself, or whoever came to mind. It’s easy to assume you thought of at least one, as Mental Health America reports that 50% of people will develop a mental illness in their lifetime.  Of those approximately 43.8 million people, it is possible that any one of them suffers from self-stigma.

So what, exactly, is self-stigma? There are many different definitions between scholarly articles and even scientific studies, but the consensus is that self-stigma is made up of negative feelings, including shame, embarrassment, guilt, hopelessness, and anger, that people living with mental illness internalize as a result of their experiences.

It’s obvious that self-stigma is negative because it makes people feel bad, but it is important to take it one step further and realize that it can actually be dangerous. The biggest concern is that these harbored feelings prevent people living with mental illness from seeking help.

Think about it: you’ve internalized your mental illness, convinced yourself that it is a shameful flaw or some form of failure, and as a result, have developed incredibly low self-esteem. You feel like it’s your fault and you shame yourself for it. What are the odds that you believe someone else won’t feel the same way about you? What would make you believe you won’t be discriminated against? Therein lies the problem.

Self-stigma is often rooted in how we talk to ourselves. Ever heard the saying, “You would never talk to someone else as harshly and horribly as you talk to yourself”? That applies here. Depression is known to cause a significant loss of interest and manifest a general feeling of hopelessness, but people with it think they can’t get out of bed because they’re “too lazy.” Anxiety causes noted fear, sometimes of very specific and unusual things that present themselves as phobias, but people with that think they’re “being a baby” or just “out of control.” The more we convince ourselves of these assumptions, the more we believe we don’t deserve help.

Self-stigma is certainly heightened by social stigma, of course. The whole thing comes full circle. We hear our friends and family tell us things like: “just keep pushing through” “think positive thoughts, and you’ll feel better” or “think about something else, and you’ll forget about it.” The more these pieces of perhaps well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice are ingrained in our head, the more we believe we should be able to power through ourselves. Sometimes, this can be a healthy thought, if you’re receiving the proper therapy, medication or another form of effective treatment but you’re just having an off day and need to get through work. If the “power through” mentality is causing you to avoid treatment altogether, that’s when it becomes dangerous.

Mental Health America created the B4Stage4 philosophy, which advocates for early treatment of mental illness. According to their website, it typically takes a person ten years to seek treatment after first noticing the symptoms of their mental illness. The idea is to find a diagnosis and treatment plan “before stage four” to preserve those ten years of life and avoid time spent suffering. Additionally, there is the possibility that the longer a mental illness festers in the sufferer’s mind, the worse it can get. While it’s never too late to intervene, it is always best to start treatment as early as possible, preferably when symptoms first appear. As their philosophy states, you wouldn’t wait to treat cancer or any other physical illness until stage four, so why would you wait that long for a mental illness?

So, what can you do?

Start with treating yourself kindly. Reverse your negative self-talk. Change thoughts like “I’m stupid and lazy,” to “I’m having a difficult day so I’m just going to do what I can, and that’s okay.” It takes a lot of practice and doesn’t happen overnight, but you have to start somewhere. Start here.

If you feel overwhelmed, seek help. There is hope. Therapy, medication, support groups, diet and exercise plans, lifestyle changes, meditation, and mindfulness– there are all kinds of things to try. Have patience and figure out what works best for you. You are worth it, and you are allowed to need help.

If you do not have a mental illness, there is still something you can do: educate yourself. Break the stigma surrounding mental illness. Don’t buy into stereotypes. Be as understanding as you can. Be aware of self-stigma and help prevent it by avoiding ignorance of mental illness and the issues surrounding it.

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